Monday, April 23, 2012

The Fox, the Hen and the Corn

Remember the Fox, Hen and Corn math problem? The farmer has to take all three across the river, but the boat can only hold one at a time. If the fox goes across, the hen will eat the corn. If the corn, the fox will eat the hen. So the farmer takes the hen. But then who to take on the second trip? If the fox, it will eat the hen when the farmer goes back for the corn. If the corn, the hen will eat the corn.

Maybe it has been a long day for you and you’re not in the mood to figure it out. So the punch line is the hen first, then the fox, then take the hen back on the way to the corn, cross with the corn, go back for the hen. Voila!

Out on my bike today, I thought about the contemporary version of this conundrum—the car, the bike and the pedestrian. They’re all trying to cross the road or share the road or share the path and unlike the circular rock-scissors-paper-rock or fire-ice-water-fire, there is a definite hierarchy.  The car is the powerful fox carnivore who has a history of mowing down bikes, pedestrians and other cars. The bike is the folksy transport, like walking with wheels— except for two recent news items of pedestrians killed by cyclists. So far no reports of pedestrians running into cars and knocking them off the road.

The history of cars and its effect on our culture would be an enlightening study. Back in 1979, returning to San Francisco after a year in places like India, Java, Bali, I was simply overwhelmed with how many cars lived on the streets of San Francisco. And I’m just talking about parking. If you stopped to analyze how in a mere hundred years, the automobile has completely transformed the landscape and the culture, you’d be hard-pressed to know whether to call Henry Ford a god or the devil incarnate. Obvious things like the need for paved roads and highways and superhighways, the consumption of and addiction to oil and subsequent decision-making about which war to fight (U.S. fights for freedom in Rwanda?! Forget it. What’s in it for us? Iraq? Now you’re talking!), depletion of ozone and climate change, the death of downtowns and rise of the sprawled malls. Then more subtle things like the factory model of production which provided both jobs and a model of social organization that trickled down into the schools with its whistles, bells, learn one thing on the line and miss the big picture, do what the bosses say and keep indoors out of the sunshine. Then probably the most important contribution of all—necking in the back seat at the drive-in movie.

Bikes are still put together with metal and steel and rubber and grease, but no fossil fuels needed for actual riding. In my childhood, something mostly for kids and my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Shawcross, who biked to work even in the winter. And then walking, a lot of it now on treadmills in gyms to try to regain the average 12-miles a day our ancestors walked so we can remember that our human body is the same as it was thousands of years ago before gyms, mountain bikes and Volvos.

So what’s my point here? Heck if I know, but if I keep typing it might circle back to the fox, chicken and corn and the changing relationship between them. In San Francisco, bike lanes have grown geometrically on the streets. In Golden Gate Park, I noticed a new idea of cars parking away from the curb with the bike lane in-between, the parked cars providing a kind of protective shelter for the death-monsters hurtling down the road. Some paths are designated for bikes only (as they are in Salzburg) and others reserved just for pedestrians. Places to lock bikes on sidewalks have grown exponentially and occasionally, there are whole bike parking lots at events watched over by volunteer security folks. Restaurants are buying parking spaces to put out tables to create the feeling of a pedestrian mall. Change is in the air, as well it should be in this time of diminishing resources. And our bodies and culture are all the healthier for it.

But the most interesting dynamic in the fox-chicken-corn trio is that we are often all three. We may put the bike on the rack on the car, drive to a spot to bike, lock it up and walk. How often have you been mad at a car when on your bike, mad at a bicyclist while walking, mad at a pedestrian while driving? It’s amazing how one second you can be driving and curse a bicyclist as if they’re from the Axis of Evil and then the next second, get on your bike and curse an auto driver!! Here is the perfect opportunity to practice compassion, to identify with other points of view that were your own ten seconds ago— and yet we fail time after time! No wonder world peace is so elusive!

Well, don’t think I exactly tied it together, but I gotta go— time to watch Fox news while eating some chicken and corn. 

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